Magic, Monsters and Music: How Fantasy Music Creates a World
Jan 24, 2020
Every writer wants you to take something away from their show. Be it a character that speaks to you, or a meaningful message that’s debated for years to come. So when everyone logged onto Netflix to watch the brand new original series The Witcher in December, no-one expected the talking point to be a song.
The original piece – written by Sonya Belousova and Giona Ostinelli, and performed by Joey Batey – is described by some, as the best part about the show. Apparently, watching the titular Witcher Geralt of Rivia, hack monsters to death isn’t what people were looking for in a fantasy show about a monster hunter. Instead, Jaskier’s masterpiece two ear-wormed its way into our heads to be sung over and over. Toss a Coin to your Witcher is a catchy ode - with both elements of modern pop and traditional medieval tones - retelling the story and rounding off an amusing episode in a light hearted way. But it does more than be a feature of an episode - it helps create a world. Music can pull people in, create motifs to be used throughout a series and to represent characters – as well as lift scenes and give them a particular feeling. Combined, musical scores and original songs create an atmosphere that sets the tone for the whole show, and The Witcher is no exception.
Chaotic and brash, yet amazingly stirring, the opening theme pays homage to its source material – both the original Polish books, written by Andrzej Sapowski, games created by Polish developers CD Projekt Red and to an extent, their source material – historical and traditional Slavic musical styles and culture. But it also creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, and a feeling that living in this world isn't easy. The harsh strings and choral vocalisation stir excitement, but the fast paced and off beat drums deafen the listener. There isn't an inch of warmth within the opening piece – not surprising in a world filled with monsters, magic and war.
So: loud percussion, a building melody that’s full of strings and operatic voices – a sweeping score. It seems to be the only way to create a world in fantasy. But that’s not always the case. Amazon Prime gave us an adaptation of the Neil Gaiman masterpiece, Good Omens last year. Following the friendship between an angel and a demon, played meticulously by Michael Sheen and David Tennant, this show is a waltz that crosses the lines of how things should be – and the way they are – across the millennias. And composer David Arnold thought much the same. The first eerily warped notes of the main theme play, and already, this world that looks like our own isn’t. Full of creatures – mythological or biblical – as well as magic, this is absolutely a fantasy. But the melody sounds like something straight out of a music box – it’s fun, playful, and a little bit silly – all finished with a pinch of devilish whirling. The music encapsulates the world you’re about to step into.
Within the realms of fantasy, there’s no limitations. In the recent BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s novels, His Dark Materials, the characters exist in a realm of multiple worlds. The theme music needed to be adventurous, whilst capturing the dangers posed in such a universe – and composer Lorne Balfe expertly creates this feeling. The repetitive motif builds over and over with additional instruments, vocals and effects to create a majestic piece, preparing you for the story ahead.
Fantasy music isn't a cut and dry formula. While it does use a lot of familiar action-packed elements, it all depends on the story at hand, and the world the audience is about to experience. The most successful fantasies are those that speak to the oral tradition of storytelling, and lead series fanatics to take these songs from that world into their own. It’s why in recent years, gaming scores have become popular among listeners - their variety and atmospheric melodies invoke emotions we want to emulate. And as games are a longer experience, other entertainment is needed when exploring the word around you. Toss a Coin to your Witcher has gone a step further, making its way into the popular sequel game The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt thanks to some clever modifications – and unintentionally, giving the now five year old game a revival of its own. So with the new series, and no doubt new songs, a whole year away, you’d better get used to the melody – this song isn’t going anywhere for a while.